Saturday, February 11, 2017

God Bless the Bronx.

The Bronx, that most maligned bit of New York City, paradoxically marooned on the mainland of the United States, deserves a lot more respect than it is given. The Bronx was the birthplace of Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, Louis Farrakhan, the NY Yankees, hip-hop music, Ed Koch, and most importantly, me. The Bronx is where I grew up, and although my family moved to NJ when I was ten, they may as well have moved to an alternative universe - one filled with bike paths and football fields and parking lots and strange non-Catholic churches. As soon as I was able I rode the buses back across the GW Bridge to the Bronx, to drink its egg creams and buy reggae singles at Jamaican record shops.

The Bronx has a bad reputation for poverty, violence, and urban ugliness that is not entirely unearned, but not entirely of its own making either. Like a lot of New York’s outer boroughs, until the 1960s the Bronx functioned pretty well as a city unto itself, sharing services with the rest of NY but with its own political machine. Then came Robert Moses. Moses was an incredibly powerful, yet unelected politician appointed as “Master Builder” to spend Roosevelt’s New Deal money on bridges, tunnels, and most of all, highways to transport the suburban commuters of the future. He loved cities, but he hated people, especially people who were not white and rich. Annoyed at the power wielded by established neighborhood political machines in Brooklyn and the Bronx Robert Moses simply blasted massive highways through the neighborhoods, creating cement canyons that cut parts of the city into new, socially isolated mini districts. The Cross Bronx Expressway and Major Deegan Thruway may be a boon to commuters but they were a death sentence to the neighborhoods of the Bronx. 

By the 1970s many – including my family – had fled the Bronx as the city began shrinking services to the borough and – secretly – colluding with developers to buy up the rapidly devaluating property cheaply. Drugs fed on the hopelessness, and gang culture flourished on the drug trade. Landlords found it easier to burn down their buildings and collect insurance money than to rent them. By 1980s the Bronx had become the backdrop for films like Fort Apache The Bronx and The Warriors (actually based on XenophonAnabasis which portrayed the Bronx as a scorched earth zone of racist nightmares. 

The low point came in 1990 when an arson fire at the Happy Lands Social Club killed 87 people, mostly Garifuna (Black Carib) immigrants from Honduras. After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, it is the third largest loss of life by fire in US history. It also brought attention to the neglect of fire regulations in the Bronx and the growing demands of the immigrant communities to be treated on an equal footing by the New York municipal authorities.

What? Your subway metro system doesn't have live Mexican accordionists?
We passed the Happy lands site while driving around the Bronx with Bob Godfried – musician, researcher, accordion repair expert, social activist, High school shop teacher – who was born and bred in the Bronx and is a deep well of knowledge of all things Bronxian. Over the years we have done a lot of exploring in the Bronx and Jersey with Mr. Godfried, and he is not letting retirement slow him down at all. When the time comes for all the Jews in the Bronx to leave, Bob will be the one who turns off the light. 

Two feral Bronx Jews captured in the forests of central Bronx.
Luckily, that time won’t come soon. There are still quite a lot of us in the Bronx, along with Africans, Chaldeans, Irish, Albanian, Macedonian Gypsies, Dominicans, Jamaicans... you get the idea. Many of the New York traditional music scene folks I knew when I lived in the USA have moved out to the suburbs, especially to upstate New York and New Jersey. Not Bob. He stays local, fixing the oddball accordions of Mexican Norteno musicians, Irish box players, and most recently, the harmoniums of the Indian community. Not many harmonium tuners in New York competing with him. 

Bob Godfried in his natural element.
A day trip with Bob is basically an excuse to talk to somebody on my frequency: a normal conversation may start by discussing early minstrel banjo construction, then contemporary Iranian Kurdish cinema, the evil calumny of Robert Moses, and then winding up furiously linking the newer Hohner accordion reeds with the fall of civilization. Bob also knows all the Oaxacan and Puebla taco shops in the Bronx and exactly where to get a Donald Trump piñata for your next quinceñero party or bar mitzvah.

Trump piñatas are literally flying out of the shop.
The Trump piñata was found in a Mexican party supplies shop in Yonkers, about a mile north of the border with the Bronx but close enough for irredentism. Yonkers is home to a large immigrant community from Mexico, and so we stopped in for a lunch of tacos and tamales at Fonda de 5 Mayo

Carnitas tacos.
Across the street, we browsed a Botanica which specialized in a deeply orthodox Yoruba expression of Santeria. The North Bronx and Yonkers is the center of New York’s African born Yoruba community, but there are lots of Ghanaian, Malians, and Senegalese up here as well.  Just down the road was the last of the Puerto Rican “cultural centers” – the Taino Mayor Record Shop. 

Rincon Center (A bad pun if you are Japanese, a good pun if you are Boriqueño.)
The shop is more of a neighborhood hangout than a commercial concern. Guitars and drums lay around waiting to be picked up and played. An old guy wearing Puerto Rico shaped sunglasses stands outside making comments about everybody who passes by. Nobody spoke English, so Bob spoke in Spanish, which long ago replaced Yiddish as the second language of the Bronx. Stuffed to the ceilings with Puerto Rican flags, CDs, cuatros, guiros, Boriqueno key rings, and even tamborines with dancing Jews printed on them, I think they were surprised when I actually purchased a CD of plena music. Most of the Bronx Puerto Ricans have moved out of the city, assimilated, or moved back to the island.

Pathfinders in the Thain Forest
Most casual visitors to the Bronx are either there for jury duty or are headed to the Bronx Zoo. Good choice, but almost across the street is the Bronx Botanical Gardens. When I was a kid I never wanted to visit there. Why see a tree when you could see bison and screeching monkeys flinging poo. But I am older now, and Fumie wanted to see it, and guess what… it is an vast island of nature smack dab in the center of the Bronx. Not only that, but it is home to the last untouched forest in New York, never logged or farmed, a parcel known as the Thain Family Forest. It is also probably the only remaining virgin hardwood forest in New York that has its own gift shop.

For about ten years the forest was off limits to visitors in order to weed out invasive species and soften environmental impact, but now it has clear paths and for a moment you can stroll through an old growth Hickory forest convenient to a NY transit metro rail stop. It is an unworldly feeling to be surrounded by 200 year old hickory and oak trees while hearing a city bus farting to a stop a few yards away. Hidden deep in the woods there is even a rarely visited  waterfall on the Bronx River.

The Botanical Gardens are brought to you by... a rich corporation!
By this time it was time to find dinner, and Pere Godfried's interior cultural map of the Bronx did not fail us. After visiting an African grocery and inhaling the aromas of deeply smoked and salted goat meat for a while, we felt that something lighter might be in order. 

Jerome Ave, near Kingsbridge Station on the 4 line.
Back in the mid 1970s when the US was settling refugees from Vietnam, the decision was made to scatter the resettled South Vietnamese communities around the country so that none of them would grow into an enclave with enough local political power to effectively control politics, as had the Cuban refugee community in Florida. (Ever hear of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio?)  Thus, New York did not really receive many Vietnamese, and those that were sent here were plunked down in the Bronx, where Bob G. was teaching wood shop in the High Schools. That's where he met the kids whose family run the Com Tam Ninh KieuVietnamese Restaurant. The menu is split between noodle soups and rice plates.

Add your bad pho pun here.
This was some of the best pho I have had in the states. Not delicate, clear broth, but a hearty, packed soup with tripe, tendon, with a small botanical garden of its own served on the side. The Bronx: some of the best eats in New York, if you know where to look.

Monday, February 06, 2017

I Love New Jersey.

It's not that I'm universally loved. We know I'm not in New Jersey. But what they do say in New Jersey is, 'We like him, and we think he's telling us the truth.' I think we need to have that type of politics on the national level.
Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey

Ferry street, Ironbound district of Newark
I'll come straight out and say it: I love New Jersey. I wasn't born here, in fact, sometimes I think nobody was. New Jersey is the ultimate immigrant state: you move here, then you move away from here. Close enough to power but far enough away that you can afford to live there. New Jersey is Donald Trump's nighmare: it is here he ran his casinos into the ground, and it is here that one could find immigrant labor to staff them at the shit wages he paid. Without immigrants you wouldn't be able to eat, shop, or breathe in this state. Immigrants kept Trump's Atlantic City Casinos alive as busloads of Chinese waiters flushed their meager earnings into the septic maw of his bank accounts. 

New Jersey gained fame when Governor Chris Christie, blocked the entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge, taking gleeful vengeance against the people of Fort Lee for having the temerity to trust in democracy. Christie's defensive opera of lies in caught the eye of that most glib of Lying Assholes, the Trumpster his self, who then dragged Christie along the campaign trail only to dump the Governor when appointments were being handed out, reportedly because Trump didn't want any fat people in his cabinet. So where is the discarded Christie now? He hangs on as the acting Governor of New Jersey like a shriveled tumor on a dog's scrotum. But, looking on the positive side, that scrotum has amazing Columbian food, Beautiful beaches, the second largest waterfall east of the Missisppi, and plenty of free parking in the back! As we so often say: Ya gotta love new Jersey.

Yes, we moved here and I moved away, like everybody in New Jersey. But I do return, and it has taken years but I have come to love this grimy, absurdist corner of America. In fact New Jersey is the place that I have resided less than anywhere else in life, but it is where I spent my teen years and it made me into the proud, dumb asshole that I am. Jersey is not pretty, and we know it. Jersey is not smart, and we know it. New Jersey has long been a byword for political corruption - as my Dad says  "New Jersey has the best politicians that money can buy." 

New Jersey is known to much of the world through the TV series The Sopranos, which was filmed here and reveled in presenting new Jersey culture in all its corrupt, run down, big-haired glory. But the decades of uneven development - farmlands becoming industrial towns becoming slums and bordering brand new suburbs - has also made New Jersey a place where you can experience cultural and social diversity unlike anything you might find in, say New York's northern suburbs or out on Long Island. (New Jerseyites have always maintained a vicious sense of superiority towards Long Island. Long Island, as everybody knows, sucks.) 

Big Bazaar on Newark Ave in Jersey City
Immigrant diversity is the norm in Jersey. If I drive to the supermarket from my parent's home in Teaneck I would pass a 17th century Dutch Farmhouse down the road, then a Muslim Medrasseh, a Korean Church, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, a Swedish delicatessen, an Afghan and Pakistani neighborhood, an Italian neighborhood, a Filipino grocery, an Indian-Chinese Restaurant, and then finally find the Farmer's Market, a Korean owned, Mexican staffed market offering frozen guinea pig meat to the Peruvians, Mexican sausage, nearly inedible bony milkfish beloved of Bengalis, and Turkish flatbread. Dinner is served. Yesterday, dinner was served in Jersey City, at the Sapthagiri Indian Vegetarian Restaurant, which we first discovered a few years ago and it remains one of the best bargains for food in the state of New Jersey. 

South Indian, North Indian, Vegan, and Gluten-free thalis at Sapthagiri Jersey City, NJ.
Jersey City used to be a run down, forgotten armpit of a town, run into bankruptcy by corrupt mayor Frank Hague from 1917 to 1950. Lack of services and crime left it a low rent place that only the poorest immigrants would find themselves in, and of course, they improved the place. Today there are significant Indian, Filipino, and African communities there and Newark Avenue, near the PATH station to Manhattan, is the hub of the Indian community centered around India Square. Many come from South India, where vegetarian diets are more common. The Sapthagiri is unique in that it offers excellent dining for all kinds of diets: Jains (who don't eat onions) gluten free, vegan, and it also gained official kosher certification - a local rabbi actually comes in daily to light the oven pilot lights. There are all kinds of savory rice cakes - idly, uppadam, and dosas, which I love but the mixed platter thalis are such an amazing bargain that I can't help myself. 

Four or five different dishes, sauces, dessert, rice, chapati, and if you run out on a favorite the waiter comes and refills your bowl. Like much South Indian food, the cuisine is not particularly spicy hot: for that I ordered a plate of "cut mirchi", chili peppers deep fried in chick pea flour in a dry onion and tomato sauce. 

Not all Indian food is spicy: that is what the spiced achar pickles and peppery side dishes are for. I want to try some of the other Indian restaurants along Newark Ave, but the Sapthagiri is so good that it keeps drawing me back, and I am not a vegetarian by any means. You see a lot of packed vegetarian restaurants in this area. The food is simply that good. And not that far away was the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. By simply driving through Hamilton, NJ and crossing the lethally polluted Passaic River we got to the Ironbound and parked on Ferry Street. We arrived twenty minutes before the Super Bowl kickoff, and the streets were nearly deserted. We were here for Teixera's Bakery, home of the best Portuguese egg custard tarts in North America.

Pasteis de nata
This being Super bowl night, the bakery was doing a brisk business in boxing take out TV snacks and the pasteis de nata were flying out of the shop as fast as they could bake them. I grabbed the last dozen of one batch, a cup of coffee, and settled into one of the spacious tables. Pasteis de nata were introduced all over the Lusitanian world, including the Chinese colony of Macao, where the inspired the Hong Kong Chinese egg tart, but these are a world apart from the Chinese version. Light, with burned caramel custard on top, and crispy when fresh, nothing like the heavy, eggy yellow pastry that ends a dim sum meal. 
Teixera's Bakery, Newark
We usually go to the Ironbound for the Portuguese restaurants, usually Seabra's Seafood nearby, after which I can't usually muster the appetite for a dessert, so I was glad we made the pilgrimage right after our veggie lunch. This is the perfect immigrant neighborhood: Portuguese, Azoreans, Brazillians, Mexicans settled here because the Ironbound is almost like a village. You can find anything you might want - from a supermarket to a Baptism - within a twenty minute walk of home. On a summer evening the cafes and bakeries set out tables on the streets,futbol blasting from televisions, kids running in the alleys, and old ladies gossiping over coffees. There is probably no other neighborhood in the USA that feels more like a European city than this corner of Newark. If you are in New York and have an evening free, take the path train to Newark and walk south along Ferry Street from the station some evening. Its like entering another country. There is a lot more to Newark than an airport.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

恭喜发财 Chinese New Year in New York

Gong Hei Fat Choy! 
 Last week was the end of Chinese New Year, which may not mean much to many of you but for the thousands of Chinese Americans in the United States and their biggest fans - the New York Jews - it is a big deal. Yes, nobody admires the Chinese as much as the Jews. We New York Jews are famous for our love of Chinese - particularly Cantonese - food. For most of us, Chinese food was the portal that introduced us to the discovery of non-kosher food, and for a lot of otherwise observant New York Jews, it was enough. I have known families who kept fully kosher homes, refused to eat at the homes of relatives whose cutlery was suspiciously less than kosher, and even timed the hours between eating meat and milk. They would, however, drop all pretension when it came to going out to a Chinese restaurant. Shrimp suddenly became kosher, and although nobody ordered the pork, they didn't mind if it crept into the egg rolls chopped up into unrecognizable bits, or if their ginger chicken was sauteed in the same wok as the spicy pork. 

Peking Duck at Duck King, Edgewater, NJ. 
The academic study "Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food" notes that the fact that the Chinese staff didn't resemble any "Goy" that our forefathers had previously been beaten up by, and the fact that there was no milk on the menu added to the attraction. Over the years, every Jew in New York began to style themselves as an expert on Chinese food. This is, by now, an almost universal attribute. Everybody thinks that "their" Szechuan Palace or Hunan Empire is the real and authentic one that "Chinese people" would eat at if only there were any Chinese people nearby who would eat there... 

Dim Sum at Jing Fong
Recently, Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker editor and grand old man of American food writing penned a verse reflecting the obsession New Yorkers have with Chinese regional foods:

Have they run out of provinces yet?If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.Long ago, there was just Cantonese.(Long ago, we were easy to please.)But then food from Szechuan came our way,Making Cantonese strictly passé.Szechuanese was the song that we sung,Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.Then when Shanghainese got in the loopWe slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,Came along with its own style of chow.So we thought we were finished, and thenA new province arrived: Fukien.Then respect was a fraction of meagreFor those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame,Plus some others—too many to name.

Trillen got in a bit of trouble for that,  by the way. In his generation Chinese Restaurants were one of the few places where a Jew could exhibit racist behavior toward anybody: mocking the Chinese waiters or the names of food was part of the the spectacle. You sit there at a big round table nibbling on fried noodle sticks dipped in "duck sauce" that no self respecting Chinese person would ever eat with your uncles and cousins and anticipate the cringe as the bad jokes about sum dum goy take over the conversation. And no, we are not beyond that yet

New Jersey, in particular, is a wasteland when it comes to Chinese food, odd given its proximity to New York City and the large amount of Chinese who reside in its suburbs. Chinese families drive over to New York when they want to shop or celebrate. NJ boasts great Korean and Japanese restaurants, but most of the Chinese ones are either Fukien-staffed take-outs serving disgusting gleet or Panda Palaces spooning out pre-frozen egg rolls and Sweet and Sour Pork to aging suburbanites who dine with forks and spoons. There are a few exceptions: we went for Chinese New Year to Duck King in Edgewater, NJ for Peking Duck. Duck King has an English menu and a separate Chinese, and also, this being New Years, offered multi course family banquet menus. It was packed with Chinese families, and the waiters were a bit overwrought with the New Year Crush, but it was a fine night out nonetheless. 

Mom and Dad out for Peking Duck

We also met up with some Hungarian friends who were in NYC to perform with the Pinter Bela Company Theater at the Barishnikov Arts Center. Gabor and I go way back, and we took a long walk across southern Manhattan, crossing the Lower East Side into Chinatown and ending up in the West Village. For lunch we checked into the Jing Fong, an old school Cantonese dim sum palace we had previously always missed. It was a first experience of Dim Sum for the Hungarians, who left it to us to order and we stacked the table with dumplings, rice rolls, and shrimp from the carts. 

Eventually we took pity and got him a fork

It seems that the savviest Chinese know to demand seating near the kitchen in order to get dibs on the good stuff as it comes out on the carts. By the time the carts get to the foreign devils seated at tables near the center of the room there is nothing left except the most well known dishes - shiu mai, spring rolls, and har gow shrimp. The place was, as the Evil Clown in the White House would say, HUGE. One of our friends got lost on the way back to the bathroom.  

The Shiu Mai are good, but the chicken feet at Jing Fong stand out.
I'll be posting on and off while I am in the USA. Presently my camera is not working up to par: it works, but not as conveniently as it should, so I have had less to illustrate blog posts with. Don't worry: New York Jew Eating Chinese Food goes to Flushing soon...